Named Routes in Servant

24 February 2022 — by Gaël Deest

Servant 0.19 was released earlier this month. It features a new combinator, called NamedRoutes, which allows you to structure your APIs with records. Concretely, instead of building up a tree of anonymous routes with (:<|>):

type API =
  :<|> "admin" :> Auth '[BasicAuth] User :> AdminRoutes

type PublicRoutes =
       "version" :> Get '[JSON] Version
  :<|>type AdminRoutes =
       "do_stuff" :> ReqBody '[JSON] Request :> Post '[JSON] Response

We can now write:

type API = NamedRoutes NamedAPI

data NamedAPI mode = NamedAPI
  { publicRoutes :: mode :- NamedRoutes PublicRoutes
  , adminRoutes  :: mode :-  "admin" :> Auth '[BasicAuth] User :> NamedRoutes AdminRoutes
  deriving Generic

data PublicRoutes mode = PublicRoutes
  { version :: mode :- "version" :> Get '[JSON] Version
  deriving Generic

data AdminRoutes mode = AdminRoutes
  { doStuff :: mode :- "do_stuff" :> ReqBody '[JSON] Request :> Post '[JSON] Response
  deriving Generic

This is slightly more verbose, but for good reason: named routes are much nicer to work with than anonymous routes, especially when dealing with complex route hierarchies exposing dozens of endpoints. To serve the API above, all we need to do is provide nested records of handlers:

app :: Application
app = serveWithContext (Proxy @API) ctx NamedAPI
  { publicRoutes = PublicRoutes
      { version = pure "0.1.0"
  , adminRoutes = \case
      Authenticated usr -> AdminRoutes
        { doStuff =,}
      _ -> throwAll err401
  where ctx =

Since matching between handlers and servant types is now done by name instead of position, order of handlers becomes irrelevant, which eliminates an entire source of frustration for servant users.

But it doesn’t stop here: GHC can now generate helpful, more focused error messages than it could before. For example, if we were to add an endpoint to the public routes of the anonymous API, like this:

type PublicRoutes =
       "version" :> Get '[JSON] Version
  :<|> "give_me_an_int" :> Capture "someInt" Int :> Get '[JSON] Int

But forgot to implement a handler for it, GHC would produce the following error message:

    • Couldn't match type ‘Handler Int’ with ‘[Char]’
      Expected type: Server
                       ((("version" :> Get '[JSON] Version)
                         :<|> ("give_me_an_int" :> Capture "someInt" Int :> Get '[JSON] Int))
                        :<|> ("admin"
                              :> (Auth '[BasicAuth] User
                                  :> ("do_stuff"
                                      :> (ReqBody '[JSON] Request :> Post '[JSON] Response)))))
        Actual type: (Handler [Char] :<|> [Char])
                     :<|> (AuthResult User -> Request -> Handler Response)
    • In the third argument of ‘serveWithContext’, namely
        ‘(public :<|> admin)’

The best GHC can do here is to report the discrepancy between the expected type of the server (computed from the entire API type) and the effective type of the server provided to serveWithContext. This is already not great with small APIs like this one, but it quickly becomes unmanageable in real-world applications. In contrast, the same situation with NamedRoutes will lead to a simple message about a missing field, no matter the size of our API:

    • Fields of ‘PublicRoutes’ not initialised: giveMeAnInt
    • In the ‘publicRoutes’ field of a record
      In the third argument of ‘serveWithContext’, namely
           {publicRoutes = PublicRoutes {version = pure "0.1.0", …},

Similarly, if we implement a handler of the wrong type returning — say — a String instead of an Int, the compiler will mention the infringing handler in the error message:

    • Couldn't match type ‘[Char]’ with ‘Int’
      Expected type: Servant.Server.Internal.AsServerT Handler
                     :- ("give_me_an_int" :> (Capture "someInt" Int :> Get '[JSON] Int))
        Actual type: Int -> Handler String
    • Possible cause: ‘(.)’ is applied to too many arguments
      In the ‘giveMeAnInt’ field of a record
      In the ‘publicRoutes’ field of a record

While GHC could me slightly more helpful by expanding the :- type family for us here, we can easily confirm with GHCi what type it is expecting:

> :kind! Servant.Server.Internal.AsServerT Handler :- ("give_me_an_int" :> (Capture "someInt" Int :> Get '[JSON] Int))

Servant.Server.Internal.AsServerT Handler :- ("give_me_an_int" :> (Capture "someInt" Int :> Get '[JSON] Int)) :: *
= Int -> Handler Int

Clients are also significantly nicer to work with when using NamedRoutes: the client function will generate nested records out-of-the-box, so we no longer need to pattern-match on its output to retrieve the functions. We can just do:

apiClient :: Client ClientM API
apiClient = client (Proxy @API)

And use normal field accessors. As a bonus, some operators have been added to make client usage feel more natural:

someClientComputation :: ClientM Int
someClientComputation = do
  version <- apiClient // publicRoutes // version
  _ <- apiClient // adminRoutes /: Token "auth_token" // doStuff /: RequestapiClient // publicRoutes // giveMeAnInt /: 42


What I just showed isn’t entirely new. Servant has had some form of support for records since Patrick Chilton’s early work on servant-generic (itself based on solga) in 2017. The servant-generic library was merged into servant itself the next year. So, what’s the news, really ?

For starters, servant-generic isn’t going anywhere ; it is actually the foundation for NamedRoutes. But NamedRoutes improves upon it by making records truly first-class citizens in Servant.

Inside Servant

Servant is a type-level DSL: an API is input as a type and not as a value. APIs are defined using a variety of combinators. The most central ones are:

  • Verb, which figures at the tip of each endpoint:
data Verb (method :: StdMethod) (statusCode :: Nat) (contentTypes :: [*]) (a :: *)
data StdMethod = GET | POST | HEAD | PUT | DELETE |type Get = Verb 'GET 200
type Post = Verb 'POST 200
  • (:>), used to add path prefixes and request parameters to a route:
data (path :: k) :> (a :: *)
  • (:<|>), used to combine APIs into larger ones (it may remind you of (<|>) from the Alternative typeclass — this is very much intentional). The (:<|>) combinator lets us describe APIs with multiple endpoints, and structure them into trees.
data a :<|> b = a :<|> b

The Servant DSL is interpreted through various type classes (HasServer, HasClient, HasLink, …). As a concrete example, consider the definition of the HasServer type class (simplified for the sake of exposition):

class HasServer api where
  -- | Associated type family computing the type of the server of a given API in the `m` monad
  type ServerT api (m :: * -> *) :: *

  -- | Route a request
  route ::
       Proxy api
    -> Delayed (ServerT api Handler)
    -- ^ Server representation with delayed request checks.
    -> Router

  -- | Hoist a server from one monad to another
      :: Proxy api
      -> (forall x. m x -> n x)
      -> ServerT api m
      -> ServerT api n

Its implementation for a :<|> b defines the server for such an API as a pair of servers ((:<|>) is used both as a type and a data constructor here), and piggy-backs on the instances of HasServer for a and b to implement hoisting and routing:

instance (HasServer a, HasServer b) => HasServer (a :<|> b) where

  type ServerT (a :<|> b) m = ServerT a m :<|> ServerT b m

  route Proxy server = choice (route pa ((\ (a :<|> _) -> a) <$> server))
                              (route pb ((\ (_ :<|> b) -> b) <$> server))
    where pa = Proxy :: Proxy a
          pb = Proxy :: Proxy b

  hoistServer _ nat (a :<|> b) =
    hoistServer (Proxy :: Proxy a) nt a :<|>
    hoistServer (Proxy :: Proxy b) nt b

When serving an API, the serve function then ensures that we give it a server of the appropriate type, by applying the ServerT type family to the API type:

serve :: HasServer api => Proxy api -> ServerT api Handler -> Application

servant-generic Primer

The records of routes one must define with servant-generic are exactly the same as those expected by NamedRoutes, e.g.:

data BookCRUD mode
  = BookCRUD
  { createBook :: mode :- ReqBody '[JSON] BookData :> Post '[JSON] BookId
  , getBook    :: mode :- Capture "book_id" BookId :> Get '[JSON] Book
  , updateBook :: mode :- Capture "book_id" BookId :> ReqBody '[JSON] BookData :> Put '[JSON] NoContent
  , deleteBook :: mode :- Capture "book_id" BookId :> Delete '[JSON] NoContent
  deriving Generic

Until now, we have glossed over the mode parameter and the :- operator. The explanation is in the GenericMode type class, and its instances:

class GenericMode mode where
  type mode :- api :: *

instance GenericMode (AsServerT m) where
  type (AsServerT m) :- api = ServerT api m

instance GenericMode AsApi where
  type AsApi :- api = api

So, BookCRUD (AsServerT Handler) is a record of handlers, and BookCRUD AsAPI is an uninhabited record whose fields have Servant API types.

But servant doesn’t know how deal with named products of routes such as BookCRUD AsAPI: it only knows about anonymous (:<|>)-trees. So servant-generic introduces a way of converting from vanilla (:<|>) products to records, and vice versa, via yet another type class:

class GServantProduct f where
    type GToServant f
    gtoServant   :: f p -> GToServant f
    gfromServant :: GToServant f -> f p

GServantProduct operates on the Generic representation of the datatype. The associated type family, GToServant, essentially maps :*: to :<|> and implements the straightforward conversion:

-- Map products (:*:) to (:<|>:)
instance (GServantProduct l, GServantProduct r) => GServantProduct (l :*: r) where
    type GToServant (l :*: r) = GToServant l :<|> GToServant r
    gtoServant   (l :*: r)  = gtoServant l :<|> gtoServant r
    gfromServant (l :<|> r) = gfromServant l :*: gfromServant r

-- Do not transform leaves
instance GServantProduct (K1 i c) where
    type GToServant (K1 i c) = c
    gtoServant   = unK1
    gfromServant = K1

Now, the following two functions allow us to convert between records and :<|>-products:

-- | Record to :<|>
    :: GenericServant routes mode
    => routes mode -> ToServant routes mode
toServant = gtoServant . from

-- | :<|> to record
    :: GenericServant routes mode
    => ToServant routes mode -> routes mode
fromServant = to . gfromServant

We now have all the pieces required to understand how BooksCRUD can be served:

  • The vanilla servant type can be computed as GToServant (Rep (BooksCRUD AsApi)).
  • The record of handlers can be converted to a vanilla servant product using toServant.
type ToServant routes mode = GToServant (Rep (routes mode))
type ToServantApi routes = ToServant routes AsApi

app :: Application
app = serve (Proxy @(ToServantApi BooksCRUD) (toServant server)
  where server = BooksCRUD {}

The Problem with servant-generic

While servant-generic does allow us to implement servers as records (and similarly, to generate records of client functions) it does not really integrate into Servant itself: at no point is any naming information available to the core mechanisms of Servant, as it is all erased using (via GToServant / gToServant).

This is not problematic when dealing with non-nested records of routes such as our BooksCRUD example above. But it is much more painful when dealing with nested APIs such as our original example. At first glance, our API definition does not change so much, as we just replaced every occurrence of NamedRoutes by ToServantApi:

type API = ToServantApi NamedAPI

data NamedAPI mode = NamedAPI
  { publicRoutes :: mode :- ToServantApi PublicRoutes
  , adminRoutes  :: mode :-  "admin" :> Auth '[BasicAuth] User :> ToServantApi AdminRoutes
  deriving Generic

To serve this API, though, we must call the toServant function at each level of the route hierarchy:

app :: Application
app = serveWithContext (Proxy @API) ctx $ toServant NamedAPI
  { publicRoutes = toServant PublicRoutes
      { version = pure "0.1.0"
  , adminRoutes = \case
      Authenticated usr -> toServant AdminRoutes
        { doStuff =,}
      _ -> throwAll err401
  where ctx =

It is cumbersome, and the error messages in case of a forgotten toServant call can be quite confusing and unhelpful.

To put it succinctly, the servant-generic machinery is very demanding: it is the responsibility of the user to understand it well enough to perform the necessary conversions. It has been a recurring source of confusion for users.

Here Comes NamedRoutes

The idea of NamedRoutes is to embed records into Servant APIs using a bona fide combinator:

data NamedRoutes (api :: * -> *)

And define:

instance (HasServer (ToServantApi api)) => HasServer (NamedRoutes api)
  type ServerT (NamedRoutes api) m = api (AsServerT m)

This instance declares the server for NamedRoutes api in monad m to be a record of handlers in the same monad (using AsServerT m as the supplied mode parameter).

It’s trickier that it may sound at first, otherwise servant-generic would have probably done just that to begin with. Our troubles come in the form of the hoistServer method of the HasServer class. Its type is:

    :: Proxy api
    -> (forall x. m x -> n x)
    -> ServerT api m
    -> ServerT api n

In the case of NamedRoutes its type unrolls to:

    :: Proxy (NamedRoutes api)
    -> (forall x. m x -> n x)
    -> api (AsServerT m)
    -> api (AsServerT n)

So, we have a record of ServerT _ m and we need to change it into a record of ServerT _ n. To do so, we convert to the record to its :<|>-based equivalent with toServant, hoist it to the new monad, and convert back to a record type with fromServant:

hoistServer _ nat = fromServant . hoistServer nat . toServant

However, we have a problem. Indeed toServant has type api (AsServerT m) -> ToServant api (AsServerT m). But hoistServer expects an argument whose type is of the form ServerT _ m. These types don’t align!

But we know that servant-generic is designed so that ToServant api (AsServerT m) is indeed of the form ServerT _ m (specifically, it is ServerT (ToServantAPI api) m). It’s just that GHC cannot see that in general: it can only be verified for concrete API types. So we need to give GHC a little bit of help and provide this identity (as well as the corresponding one for n needed for fromServant):

  ( HasServer (ToServantApi api)
  , ToServant api (AsServerT m) ~ ServerT (ToServantApi api) m
  , ToServant api (AsServerT n) ~ ServerT (ToServantApi api) n
  ) => HasServer (NamedRoutes api) where

This doesn’t work, though, since neither m nor n are bound in the instance definition: they only make sense in the type of hoistServer. But the truth is that ToServant api (AsServerT m) ~ ServerT (ToServantApi api) m holds independently of the choice of m. So really, what we want to write is

  ( HasServer (ToServantApi api)
  , forall m. ToServant api (AsServerT m) ~ ServerT (ToServantApi api) m
  ) => HasServer (NamedRoutes api) where

This is a quantified constraint. Quantified constraints are a recent feature, only available since GHC 8.6 (September 2018). Therefore, at the time servant-generic was conceived, having a NamedRoutes combinator was therefore not an option. In fact, Servant 0.19 is not compatible with GHC versions prior to 8.6 for this very reason.

Unfortunately, our troubles don’t end here. Indeed GHC rejects our quantified constraint with this error message

• Illegal type synonym family application ‘ToServant api (AsServerT m)’ in instance:
    ToServant api (AsServerT m) ~ ServerT (ToServantApi api) m
• In the quantified constraint ‘forall m. ToServant api (AsServerT m) ~ ServerT (ToServantApi api) m’

GHC complains that ToServant (and ServerT) is a type family. In quantified constraints, the usage of type families obeys similar restrictions as in type-class instances (see this discussion for more details).

Yet, we’re almost there: we need one more trick to work around GHC’s restriction. Specifically, we introduce the following type class:

class GServer (api :: * -> *) (m :: * -> *) where
  gServerProof :: Dict (ToServant api (AsServerT m) ~ ServerT (ToServantApi api) m)

Where the Dict type lets us manipulate type classes and identities as values (as described, for instance, on this wiki page). Having the identity be a value requires more work from the programmer, but it’s much more flexible as well. With this we can complete our definition.

In the instance context, we then require forall m. GServer api m (which is a valid quantified constraint) and pattern-match on the Dict produced by gServerProof @api @n as needed:

  ( HasServer (ToServantApi api)
  , forall m. GServer api m
  ) => HasServer (NamedRoutes api) wherehoistServer
    :: forall m n. Proxy (NamedRoutes api)
    -> (forall x. m x -> n x)
    -> api (AsServerT m)
    -> api (AsServerT n)
  hoistServer _ nat =
    case (gServerProof @api @m, gServerProof @api @n) of
      (Dict, Dict) -> fromServant . hoistServer nat . toServant


Using records to define Servant routes has been a tantalising option since servant-generic was introduced. Unfortunately it was finicky to use and most reverted to use anonymous routes.

There was a missing piece to the servant-generic puzzle which was completed with NamedRoutes, the implementation of which is deceptively subtle.

Hopefully, I convinced you that using records to declare Servant APIs has become a very pragmatic choice in Servant 0.19.

Should you have any kind of feedback, don’t hesitate to open a ticket on our issue tracker!

About the author

Gaël Deest

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in joining the Tweag team.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.


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